Mali’s interim government and ethnic Tuareg rebels last month signed a peace accord that will allow elections to proceed this month in the war-torn West African nation. International donors have committed $2.6 billion in aid to help rebuild Mali on the condition that a presidential election takes place July 28. After French troops helped drive Islamist extremists from Mali’s northern towns earlier this year, the Tuareg rebels, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, reclaimed the northern town of Kidal as their stronghold and declared sovereignty over the region. The peace deal averted a military confrontation and allowed Mali to re-establish security in the area. Government has become almost nonexistent in northern Mali since the Tuareg rebels and Islamists overtook the region in January 2012.
Some government personnel recently returned to the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu, but basic services are still lacking. Few schools are functioning, and more than 100,000 children have no access to education. Most teachers and doctors have not returned, and utility services are limited. There is a growing concern that the upcoming rainy season will make some areas impassable during the election. There is added concern that the election will take place during the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, which begins July 8 and ends Aug. 7.
There are 15 candidates, one of whom is backed by interim President Dioncounda Traore’s party and three others who have held positions in corrupt administrations. The elections are intended to represent a fresh start to prove to the world that Mali can govern justly. An honest leader is needed, one who is not associated with the old regimes. The new head of state must be a proven leader with integrity and the ability to unify the country. Campaigning begins Sunday, and the candidates need to be able to campaign without being in danger. Security is still a concern in parts of northern Mali due to recent insurgent attacks. “There is a feeling that things are going to go back to business as usual, and that might discourage voters,” said Issa Ndiaye, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako, Mali’s capital.
Security concerns might diminish voter turnout, in which case the insiders could prevail, Mr. Ndiaye said, adding that the candidates will need to address Malians’ concerns about making ends meet. The candidates must be able to travel freely around the country and to refugee camps so that the new government can represent all of the country’s ethnic groups.
About 500,000 Tuaregs and Arabs have been displaced, many residing in U.N. refugee camps in neighboring countries. Accommodations will need to be made for their participation in the voting process. Historically, voter turnout has been about 40 percent. If the turnout is not representative of the ethnic groups, the new president will face instability almost immediately — especially among the Tuareg separatists.
The U.N. is sending 12,000 African peacekeepers to Mali to help bring stability to the country. About 3,000 French troops will need to stay to fight the Islamist insurgents should they return. The peacekeepers will help distribute election materials and national identification cards. Last week, a Malian delegation visited refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger to identify where polling stations will be set up. The election needs to be inclusive or else reconciliation will be difficult to achieve. Free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections are paramount for Mali’s future success. Well-trained election observers will be needed to cover almost 25,000 polling stations. A flawed election will risk the loss of international financial donors — and possibly the unleashing of the Tuaregs.
This article was originally posted in The Washington Times.